Over at LDSLF, Dave Landrith asks an interesting question: can sin ever profit the soul? This is a topic I’ve pondered at some length over the years. Contra Dave, I believe that sinful acts can have real eventual spiritual benefits.
How exactly is it possible for sin to result in an ultimate spiritual gain? Because God can take the contacts that we may make in times of sin, the experiences that we gain, the repercussions that result, and turn them to a greater good.
This principle is illustrated clearly in scripture itself. In Alma 24, we see the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. The people of God chose to suffer death, unresisting. Their sacrifice converted thousands of their enemies.
Could those enemies have been converted absent their sinful act? It is not at all clear. Their hearts were sufficiently hardened that the preaching of the word had not yet converted them. It was only the shocking act of killing the innocent that awoke them to their sinful state; they then repented and were converted.
And what if one could go back in time and undo that sinful act? What then? Well, it is impossible to say that those sinners would later have been converted. Perhaps some of them would indeed have heeded further preaching. It is probably best to assume, however, that at least some subset of that group would not have been converted in that counterfactual world; for the people within that subset, their only way to repentance and belief had to come via a detour through sin.
How unique is this story? Is it possible that this particular story is indeed an instance of drawing a spiritual benefit from sin, but that it is also a one-of-a-kind, special occurence? I think not. Ask yourself, how many of us know a couple whose story falls along these lines:
She is an inactive church member who begins dating a non-member. At some point, they begin living together; they eventually marry and start a family. Somewhere down the line, she starts going back to church. She takes the kids to church; her husband cautiously tags along. Baptism follows, and a few years later he’s in the EQ presidency and the family is being sealed in the temple. Sound familiar? I thought so.
The simple fact is that all of our actions result in contacts, skills, experiences — consequences. Those consequences are generally not evil themselves, and they can be turned by God to our net spiritual gain. In fact, He loves to do this. He loves to make lemonade out of the lemons that we create. He has done this for thousands of years. He turned a visit by Israelite spies to the local harlot — clearly a sinful act — into a saving tool for the spies themselves and a benefit to the Israelite army. He turned the massacre of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies into a scene of mass conversion and repentance. God’s power is sufficient to take the fallout from our sinful acts — particularly, I think, those acts that broaden our social circles, or that result in the development of friendships or shared experiences with others — and turn them into a spiritual benefit that can accrue to us or to others.
Of course, one potential response to this argument is that God could have found another way to accomplish the same good, without the accompanying bad. This argument cannot be refuted in most cases — after all, we’re playing deep within counterfactual worlds, depending on empirical points that can never actually be established. However, it is a response that I find often rings hollow, since in many cases, it is hard to envision a counterfactual world that allows for the same ultimately beneficial consequences that ultimately come out of certain sinful acts.
And even if such worlds can be imagined in most cases — if we can think of counterfactual worlds that allow for our John Doe to eventually be baptized, and for our Lamanites to eventually find the gospel — there is still one instance where a series of sinful acts was absolutely necessary to reach a spiritual gain. And what a gain it was. Recall that a series of flawed and sinful men once, acting together, commited the ultimate sinful act. For what could possibly be more sinful than killing the Son of God?
That act was, without a doubt, the darkest and most hideous sin that mankind has ever committed. And yet God, through His power and love, took that sin and and transformed it into the greatest gift ever given the world. And as a result, it is on that sin — and its ultimate Consequences — that all of our souls depend. Indeed, if that sin could somehow be erased, with it would be erased the sublime beauty and love and power of the Atonement.
So I suppose I’ll disagree with your conclusion, Dave. It is absolutely correct that we should avoid sin wherever possible, and that our personal detours through sin will be painful and wrenching and may harm us greatly. And yet, I think that there are some times when a loving and all-knowing God, in his wisdom, realizes that only through a detour or series of detours can some of us ultimately reach our final destination. Our hopefully-not-too-frequent detours through sin, like the rest of our experiences, combine to make us who we are. And as long as “who we are” is “someone moving towards God,” then those detours can in fact result in spiritual benefit in our lives.